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Published: June 25, 2011


A quasi-secret society of college students organized for any of a variety of reasons, including social or professional comradeship, the provision of living accommodations, the bestowing of academic or other honors or the performance of social service. Originally for men only—fraternitasis is Latin for “brotherhood”—fraternities can be traced back to the University of Bologna in the late 11th century, where student societies, usually organized on the basis of nationalities (and called “nations”) provided the only collective living quarters at or near their schools. Those original societies are still evident at such universities as Uppsala, Sweden, where student groups continue to arrange member housing, administer scholarships and provide other student services, as they have since the university’s founding by Sten Sture the Elder in 1477. As universities took over the obligation of housing students in some countries, student societies evolved into social, political or recreational groups such as Germany’s infamous dueling societies.
Although rooted in medieval European and English traditions, modern college fraternities in the United States are a uniquely American institution, dating back to the DEBATING SOCIETIES and literary societies formed at Yale University in 1753 and, soon thereafter, at Princeton and Harvard. The first fraternity bearing a Greek letter name was PHI BETA KAPPA, founded at the COLLEGE OF WILLIAM AND MARY on December 5, 1776, primarily as a debating and literary society, although it extended its functions to enrich the social lives of its members. Like earlier literary societies, Phi Beta Kappa represented an attempt by students to assert their rights of assembly, free speech, independent decision and other newly won individual and political freedoms of which they had been deprived by autocratic tutors at strict, British-style colonial schools and colleges. To distance themselves from their tutors, members of Phi Beta Kappa and the Greek-letter societies that followed adopted a variety of secret rites, including secret oaths, secret codes of laws, secret initiation ceremonies, Greek and Latin seals and mottoes and even secret handshakes. Phi Beta Kappa also adopted a badge or key, which elected members wear to this day.
In 1781, two years after granting charters to Yale and Harvard Universities, the original Phi Beta Kappa was forced to dissolve after British troops invaded Tidewater, Virginia, and disrupted life at William and Mary. The chapter was not revived until 1851. In 1875, the University of Vermont chapter admitted the first two women, thus converting it from a social fraternity into an honor society for students graduating college with high academic honors, outstanding character and other achievements.
In the meantime, other Greek-letter societies had developed along entirely different lines. Beginning in the early 1800s, when few colleges offered boarding facilities to students, fraternity houses sprang up as boarding houses for groups of compatible students, seeking offcampus comradeship, recreation and relief from campus discipline and an alternative to boarding with local families, who might impose restrictions stricter than those of the college. In the late 1800s, as millions of poverty-stricken immigrants crowded into American cities, many fraternities adopted social-service functions. As the number of colleges expanded in the early 1900s, so did the number of national fraternities, with chapters on campuses across the United States. Still the primary source of student boarding facilities, fraternities continued growing as centers of campus social life. By 1940, there were nearly five dozen national fraternities, with tens of thousands of members on campuses across the nation.
The end of World War II and the routine construction of dormitories on college campuses cost some fraternities their role as boarding houses, but their function as social centers increased, as students sought a respite from the sterile atmosphere and uniform appearance of dormitory corridors. Although the number of fraternities remained relatively constant, with about six dozen men’s and three dozen women’s social fraternities, the number of national fraternity chapters nationwide doubled to more than 5,000, on more than 800 campuses. Membership climbed to about 400,000 members, or about 5% of the population at four-year colleges.
Fraternities suffered a decline in number and membership during the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s and the national revulsion at discriminatory practices at colleges that depended on public funds. Some colleges and universities banned fraternities entirely. From 1965 to 1972, fraternity membership and, as a consequence, the number of chapters, plunged about 40%.
The 1970s and 1980s, however, saw a revival in the number of fraternities, as civil rights laws ended discrimination. Also spurring the revival of fraternities was the passage of state laws banning the sale of alcoholic beverages to persons under 21, thus forcing student parties off campus into private facilities. By the mid-1990s, an estimated one-third of American college students belonged to residential and nonresidential social fraternities. By then, too, many fraternities had become co-ed.
After reaching record membership levels of about 400,000 in 1990, fraternity membership once again began plunging, as the number of students on financial aid increased and left fewer undergraduates able or willing to afford the hundreds of dollars in annual membership costs. Many students were also repelled by an ever-increasing stream of ghastly headlines about alcohol and drug abuse—and occasional accidental injuries and deaths arising from fraternity pranks and initiation rites. A 1997 study of more than 25,400 students at 61 colleges by the Journal of Studies on Alcohol published at Rutgers University found that fraternity leaders exhibited the highest incidence of so-called binge drinking (five or more drinks per sitting) at college, with nearly 74% having engaged in such drinking within two weeks of the survey, compared to 42% of students not belonging to fraternities. Fraternity leaders consumed an average of 14 drinks a week. Although binge drinking by females was lower than males, 55% of sorority leaders admitted to binge drinking, compared with only 26% of non-sorority students. With grade-point averages of fraternity members well below the average of the general student population, serious scholars shunned the fraternities, and membership dropped precipitously. By 2000, membership had declined 30%, with some campuses experiencing declines of more than 50%. In the eight years ending in 1998, the average chapter size dropped from 54 men to 38. Some fraternities vainly tried stemming the decline by establishing alcohol-free chapters and waiving fees for needy students.
Membership in most fraternities is decided by member voting, following a week in which prospective members “rush” the fraternity by attending parties and meeting members. Those elected to membership—so-called pledges—receive instruction in fraternity history, customs and laws. During a final “Hell Week,” pledges are expected to participate in humiliating and often dangerous initiation rites, and it is this aspect of fraternity life that has repelled a growing number of students. By 2000, there were about l50 men’s and women’s residential and social fraternities, of which 64 were all-men’s organizations and 25 were all-women’s sororities, which have not been associated with the dangerous antics of men’s fraternities. Although sororities on some campuses experienced membership declines, average chapter size across the nation actually rose over the last two decades of the 1900s, from 46 to 54 in the 1999–2000 academic year.
In addition to the more than 150 men’s and women’s residential and social fraternities, there were nearly 90 professional fraternities in 2006 whose members were engaged in the study or practice of specialized professions or vocations such as journalism, law, medicine, music and engineering. There were also about 40 recognition societies for students with high academic achievements in specific subjects and almost six dozen honor societies, such as Phi Beta Kappa, for students who achieved distinction in scholarship, social contributions, character or academic achievement. By 2000, more than 125 fraternities had ceased to exist, although their names remained on record, and, as housing shortages began developing on some college campuses, students began to revive them—often with financial support from fraternity alumni. Embarrassed by the antics at some chapters, many of the 4 million fraternity alumni have insisted on a ban on alcohol as a condition to their financial contributions. (See also HAZING; SORORITY.)